I’m going to go out on a limb and say having Howie Chaykin do an issue of art—the fiftieth Punisher MAX, so for the collectors’ who got anniversary issues–having Howie fill-in was a mistake.
Maybe if the rest of it weren’t regular artist Goran Parlov, like if it’d been all guest artists. But Howie ends up being a distraction. Sure, he’s doing the least connected material; his issue’s all first act stuff, with Barracuda back to attack Frank through his friends. Except it turns out Frank really does only have the one friend but Garth Ennis’s script has a surprise twist on that front. Meanwhile, Frank’s having a bad few weeks as he tries to shake off a dream about being a mundane white guy in his sixties, which is where the Howie art really comes through. Parlov’s going to visualize Frank and Barracuda as giant monsters in the real world, the monstrosities of toxic masculinity and patriarchy (whether Ennis wants to acknowledge it or not—he just uses bad dads, PTSD, and good dads for his terminology), but Howie makes them real. As real as anything else in Howie art anyway. And it lacks the energy Parlov’s going to bring later. Ennis actually coins it—“dark enthusiasm.” There’s a dark enthusiasm to the horrible violence and terror in Parlov’s rendering of Barracuda and Frank’s constant showdowns, as Barracuda (and Ennis) figure out a way to make Frank hurt. Howie doesn’t have it. His fight scenes are just fight scenes. He does much better with horny old man Frank getting it on with dream old lady Angie.
Because, you know, it’s Howie.
And despite a return guest star in Howie’s issue, it’s all new cast later on, with Frank having to pretend to be human again. Ennis has a very lyrical take on Frank’s first person, with the occasional poetic flex too far, but for the most part he makes it. Especially after Parlov shows up. The first chapter, while Barracuda’s terrorizing and Frank’s moping as much as he’s allowed to mope, has this exquisitely executed history of Vietnam-era rifles, with acerbic commentary from Frank as he fires off rounds to clear his head. The sequence does a lot of work later on, not exactly softening Frank but widening the potential for his first person narration let’s say, which has been Ennis’s whole trip on Punisher MAX.
I don’t think I’ve read Long Cold Dark since the floppies a decade plus ago. Maybe I read a trade. But I don’t think so. So I don’t know if, at the time, it was the first time Ennis had ever gotten me to tear up on a Punisher comic. Now it’s old hat. He got me sobbing with the last Vietnam flashback limited. Long Cold Dark only got me verklempt and teary-eyed and not even about the tragedy of Frank Castle. It’s over someone else, one of Ennis’s MAX originals, who Ennis has layered throughout the series to amazing effect before and even more amazing effect post-Long Cold Dark. It was during that sequence I realized just how unfair giving Howie the first chapter turns out to be, given how good Parlov has to be to execute the finale. Like, they got a guest artist, gave him the easiest stuff, then gave Parlov a whole big thing with no fanfare. Ennis asks a whole lot more of Parlov in Long Cold Dark than he asks of Howie, which is just one of the facts of the comics trade, but still.
The story itself is mostly split between action and Frank’s self-reflection; there are occasional talking heads sequences, sometimes exposition dumps, sometimes just there to get Frank’s first-person narration to the right place. Ennis isn’t using Barracuda for broad comic relief here either. Barracuda becomes a—conditional—tragedy. There are frequent flashbacks for both Frank and Barracuda and Ennis has a nice way of tying the characters and their shared history of Vietnam without worrying about an alter ego thing. It’s one of those “Frank is Barracuda’s nemesis but Barracuda isn’t Frank’s nemesis” things. Frank doesn’t have a nemesis, something Ennis has tried to drive home from the start of MAX.
And Long Cold Dark does feel like a leveling up for the series, not just because it got me teary, but where Ennis has moved the character and how to think about him. Having Barracuda—arguably Ennis’s most glaring misstep in the entire run of the series so far—be so successful doesn’t exactly make up for the previous slogs, but it does show Ennis is able to fix something he was wrong about, which is a fairly singular quality for a comic book writer. I misremembered the content of the story, thinking some of it was later on in the series, and wasn’t exactly looking forward to it.
Shows what I know. Howie’s guest art spot being completely out of sync aside (and terribly misprinted in the Punisher MAX Volume 2 Omnibus, beware), Long Cold Dark is outstanding.